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International Socialism, Winter 1961


Theo Melville

Grey Man


From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


George Orwell
Richard Rees
Secker & Warburg.

Yet another book on Orwell, this time by a close personal friend. The author of 1984 has become something of an obsession for the left in this country, and there would seem to be very little more to say. On the purely literary level, Orwell has been greatly overestimated. Stylistically, he is often very flat and lacks the intense vision of contemporaries such as Lawrence and Kafka, similarly oppressed by the decadence of an outworn society.

Because he chose to write on the art of Donald McGill, absurd claims continue to be made for his essays, although he defended in part the ‘responsible’ Kipling and naively dismissed Dali as obscene. Nevertheless reading Orwell is a useful experience because he reflects extremely well the general confusion of a non-Marxist leftist in the thirties when the CP and its entourage of bourgeois rebels helped to demoralize the left and prepare the way for the second world war. This experience largely accounts for Orwell’s pronounced later pessimism. Repudiating the phoney pinks, particularly after his experience of the Stalinist terror against POUM and the Trotskyite movement in Spain, Orwell was incapable of analyzing this experience and became alienated from any optimistic Socialist standpoint. No doubt also his profoundly bourgeois background, Eton, Imperial service in Burma, prevented him from ever approaching a revolutionary Marxist standpoint. Thus even his criticisms of Stalinism played into the hands of the Social Democrats and the retrograde Tory mentality of which he never entirely freed himself.

In 1984, where Orwell describes the new super state, the question of torture is central. As torture breaks hero and heroine destroying their relationship, the final suggestion is that Big Brother will triumph in the atomization of human beings. This inhuman process is certainly at work under modern capitalism, but Orwell saw no countervailing forces in the workers’ movements and again his book could be used by reactionaries purely against the USSR.

Orwell is a saddening grey man whose books reflect a grey empty world. Rees writes from the standpoint of a liberal bourgeois, and is somewhat trite.

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